Monday, May 22, 2006

I've been tasting roads my whole life.

Here's what I wrote about My Own Private Idaho a year ago in my notebook:

"River Phoenix was so fucking good. Fuck heroin."

These are the sort of earnest declarations, rarely seen after adolescence, that some of the great films can inspire. My Own Private Idaho is one of those films; it's that rare cinematic treasure that speaks to our hearts and minds with equal measure. The film's main character is asleep and adrift, carried through life in the arms of strangers. Anyone who denies relating to him is a robot.

The film opens, as a cheerful title card informs us, in Idaho, on a lonely stretch of road. Mike Waters (River Phoenix), a young street hustler and drifter, is wandering along; we don't know where he's been or where he's headed, and neither does he. Before collapsing with a bout of narcolepsy, Mike remarks that he recognizes this road - it's "like a fucked-up face." Mike squints, and we share his point of view; the camera irises in, and we'd have to agree that it does, indeed, look like a fucked-up face. As we follow Mike on various tricks, from Seattle to Portland to Italy and always back to Idaho, we are always invited to see the world through his eyes. And while Van Sant does not flinch away from the seedier aspects of street life - multicolored porn in a dingy store, stories of violent johns, Udo Kier - the result is never self-consciously gritty or "real." Instead, the film, like Mike, revels in a heightened reality, one that is bittersweet, funny, and romantic.

It's a world where characters like fellow hustler Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), who plans to end his wayward life on his twenty-first birthday and assume control of his father's empire, and their corpulent father figure Bob (William Richert) can unknowingly echo Prince Hal and Falstaff. The riff on Shakespeare could have easily been insufferably arch, but instead it makes for a beautiful gesture, taking something that has been made elitist and giving it back to the groundlings. But Shakespeare is only one of Idaho's densely woven tapestry of allusions. The soundtrack veers between the haunting echo of Marty Robbins' "Cattle Call," the syrupy sweetness of Elton John's "Blue Eyes," and a lone guitar picking "Home on the Range" - these songs are mixed in wind, water, and overheard conversations, as though they were being sounded by the heavens. A brief scene of Mike laughing at a Simpsons episode is weirdly enchanting, and the image lingers reflected in a window, out of focus, ephemeral. And his dreams of his long-lost mother are shot on super-8, like an old home movie; memories and celluloid become one and the same. It's a world that is at once constructed and organic, where there is little to distinguish waking life from dreams.

In the midst of this gleefully chaotic smash-up comes the scene that makes My Own Private Idaho an indisputable masterpiece. Mike and Scott are sitting at a makeshift campfire in the middle of the night, in the midst of a search for Mike's mother. With six words - "I really wanna kiss you, man" - the film immediately and sharply cuts deep into the hearts of anyone who has suffered unrequited longing. After quite an elusive, complex first hour, Van Sant's decision to address the central meaning of the film so directly must have seemed a dangerous proposition. The film, so delicate, could have fallen like a house of cards under the weight of such unabashed romanticism. But it's a credit to Van Sant's vision, and the two leads, that the scene works so wonderfully. The bulk of the credit has to go to Phoenix, who never strikes a false note in the whole film. Look at him laughing in the background at Bob's wild stories, or cradling himself like a child as he tells Scott's new girlfriend that he knows how she feels - he is unabashedly, nakedly human.

Still, I've only begun to scratch the surface. The film is crammed with great characters, from Reichert's pompous, scraggly den mother to Mickey Cottrell's spooky bit as Daddy Carroll. As a piece of filmmaking craft it's perfect - every shot and cut are just as they should be. And yet none of this would matter if the film didn't have an emotional center, and My Own Private Idaho has a heart as big as Boise. When we leave Mike, he's just left on a new journey. We don't know any more about where he's headed then we did at the start, but he's not without love anymore; the miracle of cinema is that we've grown to love him. It'd be easy to read the last words - "Have a nice day" - as sarcastic, but I prefer to take them at face value. Van Sant sees our basic desires so clearly. He never strikes a dishonest note, but manages to tell us a very heartfelt story about a narcoleptic prostitute, motherless and adrift, who wants nothing more than to be held. What a beautiful film.


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